Voting for Italy's president fails again; no political deal

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President of the Italian Senate, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, left, and President of the Italian Lower Chamber Roberto Fico count ballots in the Italian parliament in Rome, during a voting session in the Italian parliament, in Rome, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. The first rounds of voting in Italy's Parliament for the country's next president yielded an avalanche of blank ballots, as lawmakers and special regional electors failed to deliver a winner amid a political stalemate. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, pool)

ROME – Insistence by Italy's center-right bloc that one of their candidates is vaulted to the country's presidency backfired on Friday, as tensions and frustration mounted among the rival parties forming Premier Mario Draghi's pandemic unity government and a fifth day of voting yielded no winner.

In each of two rounds of voting on Friday, one political bloc or the other abstained in droves from casting ballots, making plain how far apart both sides were on agreeing who should be Italy's next head of state.

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At the start of the fifth day of voting, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini declared that the center-right bloc would vote for the Senate president, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati. Her political career’s springboard has been the conservative Forza Italia party of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who himself bowed out as a candidate before voting began this week.

But her candidacy garnered only 382 votes from among Parliament’s Senate and lower Chamber of Deputies and special regional electors, far short of the simple majority of 505 needed for victory.

A sixth round of balloting, held on Friday evening, also yielded no winner, with leaders from the center-right bloc indicating their electors were sitting out that round while behind-the-scenes negotiations continued.

Outgoing President Sergio Mattarella, 80, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want a second term despite appeals from some party leaders in recent weeks. He recently rented an apartment in Rome, preparing for his move out of the presidential Quirinal Palace when his term runs out on Feb. 3.

But with political consensus across the party spectrum so far failing to materialize, lobbying could swell to persuade him to change his mind. In Friday’s evening round, Mattarella gained the most votes — 336 — indicating that for the time being at least no other name was ripe to attract significant traction.

Balloting continues on Saturday morning.

Neither of the two major blocs in Parliament – the center-right or center-left – has the necessary majority on paper. Secret voting means the risk is also high for defections.

Under the Constitution, the head of state is a largely ceremonial figure who represents national unity. The president, however, helps to authoritatively mediate Italy’s frequent political squabbling in its coalition governments and can dissolve Parliament if it becomes hopelessly stalemated.

Traditionally, parties across the spectrum come together to elect a head of state who is supposed to be above the partisan fray during the seven-year tenure. Three former premiers, Democratic Party chief Enrico Letta, centrist leader Matteo Renzi and populist 5-Star Movement Giuseppe Conte, have been working behind the scenes to try to forge consensus and have reached out to the center-right to come up with a candidate suitable to all.

Consensus must be developed around “a shared candidate, impartial,” Conte told reporters.

Draghi has left the door open for himself to be chosen as president.

But Salvini and Berlusconi have insisted that he stay in the premier’s office to help guarantee the smooth delivery and implementation of some 200 billion euros ($225 billion) in pandemic recovery funds. That's compounded by nerves that any move by Draghi on the presidency could fuel political instability and trigger elections a year ahead of time. The prospect spooks some political leaders whose parties haven’t fared well in recent local or regional elections.

Analysts in Italy and abroad have said the squabbling between blocs will hurt whatever political stability the country benefited from by having Draghi at the helm over the last year. The former European Central Bank chief is credited with saving the euro single currency and is widely respected in the European Union.

“Regardless of its outcome, the divisive presidential election will significantly affect Draghi’s government, as the coalition parties now are extremely divided and reconciling these differences will be hard,” London-based analyst Wolfango Piccoli at Teneo, a consulting and advisory firm, said in an emailed commentary.

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